David Frum

09.19.12

Did Rahm Blink?

With the strike over (no contract yet, but we won't see teachers back on the streets), I'm pulling together some punditry to answer the most important question in politics: who won?

The Chicago Tribune's editorial board provides a quick summary:

We'll save you the trouble of wading through this massive contract, 10 months in the haggling. Bottom line: This is not a status-quo-hugging contract. On balance, this deal should bring Chicago closer to other big cities and states that are pushing even more dramatic reforms.

Most important: Students will get a longer instructional day. Teachers will face a far tougher evaluation process that for the first time holds them accountable for student academic growth. That will help identify the teachers who most consistently help students learn. It should help teachers improve. And it should usher the weakest teachers out the door. ...

Beyond this contract is a larger reality: This school system faces declining enrollment and rising expenses. CPS needs to find a sustainable financial footing. This contract doesn't help much. Yes, one of the most egregious financial abuses — allowing teachers to bank hundreds of sick days, for example — will finally end.

But the system faces back-to-back billion-dollar deficits and huge upcoming pension payments. It has no available reserves. And now, it has promised $295 million in salary hikes to teachers.

The American Enterprise Institute's Rick Hess declares Rahm the big loser of the showdown.

In a strike where Rahm appeared to have the upper hand, he came out with very little. The three-year deal calls for raises of 3 percent, 2 percent, and 2 percent, over and above regular step-and-lane increases (which it preserves). This will cost CPS hundreds of millions a year in new salaries by 2015. What did Rahm get in return? He basically got the teachers to comply with state law: Illinois requires that student growth account for at least 25 percent of teacher evaluation. Rahm insisted on 40 percent. They wound at 30 percent. I'm not 100% clear on what came of Rahm's solemn proposal to extend the school day; but it looks like he'll have to do it by hiring 600 more teachers because the current teachers refused to teach more hours, even for higher salaries. One half of these teachers must be laid-off CPS veterans. Teachers displaced because of school closures will be free to follow their students to other schools, regardless of their performance.

By yesterday, we were hearing a lot more about air-conditioning and Rahm's bullying than we were about giving principals the authority to build a coherent faculty or the district's declining budget. Oh, and the funny thing is--in a suit the Chicago board of education finally got around to filing on Monday--the city argued that it is now illegal for unions to collectively bargain over non-economic issues. Hmmm, you'd think Rahm might've raised that earlier, and been more reluctant to bargain over, you know, non-economic issues.

Another Tribune story features Emanuel's frustration with the union.

"The critical issue is to separate the union from the teachers. They're not the same thing," Rauner said. "The union basically is a bunch of politicians elected to do certain things — get more pay, get more benefits, less work hours, more job security. That's what they're paid to do. They're not about the students. They're not about results. They're not about the taxpayers."

The CTU and its teachers will "always be aligned" over higher pay, he said. But teachers could be split off from the union's leadership on the issues of evaluations and merit pay, he said.

"The good teachers know they'll do fine. They've got the confidence. I've talked to them. I know," Rauner told more than 200 people at the Art Institute of Chicago. "It's the weak teachers. It's the lousy, ineffective, lazy teachers that — unfortunately there are a number of those — they're the ones that the union is protecting and that's where there's a conflict of interest between the good teachers and the union bosses."

Finally, the Tribune's bomb-thrower, John Kass, notes the growing unease between two core constituencies of the Democratic Party.

In political terms, the strike exposed a growing rift between two main constituencies of the Democratic Party, the public service unions and the urban poor. If Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker were mayor of Chicago, labor and allies would have howled him down. The conflict between the unions and the people they're supposed to serve would be a running national story. But Walker is a Republican who fought the unions in Wisconsin. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a Democrat, with his former boss President Barack Obama running for re-election. So national labor contempt was muted. Still, the rift remains and grows, as local governments run out of resources.

So did the famously tough Rahm blink? Yep, it pretty much looks like he did.